Sunday, December 15, 2013

Questions to Ask When You're an Outside Facilitator

One of the most exciting things I've done over the last decade is develop a two-year facilitation training, where I work with a geographically concentrated group of students (of all ages) eight times over 24 months, in intensive three-day weekends spaced approximately three months apart. 

Today I'm in Pittsboro NC delivering Weekend IV of the eighth edition of this program (which means this is my 60th training weekend). Not one to let moss grow on my programs, I'm actively marketing this training in New England, Portland OR, and Madison WI.

Out of the seven completed programs there is a handful of graduates who are interested in taking their skills on the road (rather than just practicing their craft at home). Two of my more venturesome graduates from the recently concluded northern CA training just did some work with a regional client, and wrote me because they were dissatisfied with their prepping with the client ahead of time. What, they asked me, is my prep template as an outside facilitator? What a good question!

I realized that a good bit of this is peculiar the situation (by which I mean, all questions are not potent in all scenarios), yet there are nonetheless some predictable lines of inquiry. Here are a baker's dozen to keep in mind:

1. What are the topics you want to address?
(Duh) I know this sounds obvious, but clients can be more in a fog bank than you might expect. Knowing you need help is not quite the same as knowing where you need help. Sometimes you have to bring them in for a landing on instruments only. Also, see Point 8 below for ways in which you may have to guide the client to land at the right airport, not just on the right runway.

2. How much time are you planning to devote to each topic?

There are several parts to this, including: a) how much time the group is willing to devote to meetings; b) what kind of meeting stamina the group possesses (which is affected in turn by how badly they perceive they need help—note that I didn't say how badly they actually need help); c) what their budget is for hiring an outside person and whether they run out of money before they run out of work (occasionally I get a client who'll ask me how much of their engine can I rebuild for $500); d) how well does the client (or at least the person who's your liaison for background) understand the complexities of the topic.

Then, for each topic:

3. What are the objectives for the time on that topic? 

To what extent are you wanting help with a specific issue, and to what extent training in how to handle dynamics that this issue showcases? If you want both, that translates to more time per issue.

4. What is the background on that topic?   

    --Are there any current agreements that bear on this topic? No need to reinvent any wheels.
    --Are there any recent prior conversations that bear on this topic? If so, what is the product of those conversations? Let's not re-plow freshly tilled earth.    
    --What community values are in play with this topic? If that's been identified already it'll save time.     
    --Is there precedent on this topic (or others like it) that we should be aware of? For some groups being consistent is a big deal; for others, not so much.

5. Are there any icebergs with this topic? 

Generally what you're looking for is non-trivial unresolved tensions among stakeholders. Sometimes it can help considerably to talk directly with people known to be triggered in connection with a topic before you arrive on site, both to put them at ease with your understanding of their story and feelings, and with your ability to be fair.

6. How do you make decisions?

Will we be able to make binding decisions in this meeting if we come to agreement, or will the outcomes be advisory only? While I've never understood the point of prohibiting the group from making decisions in the presence of any outside facilitator (are they afraid they'll be talked into something on Sunday that they'll regret on Monday?), clients do this all the time and you have sing from their hymnal.

7. What authority do facilitators have to run meetings?

Do you have authority to interrupt repetition, redirect off-topic comments, and decide the order in which questions will be addressed? Will you be given latitude to work emerging distress? In short, what a license are you being given to drive their car?

All of that said, there are some pitfalls to watch out for:

8. Clients who have naive ideas about how much time something will take.

It can be expensive hiring outside help and clients understandably want to get as much product as possible for their dollar. This can include overloading their plates at the all-you-can-eat outside facilitation buffet. When clients are allowed to do that it's a set up for one of two things, neither of which is good: a) disappointment that their unrealistic expectations weren't met; or b) indigestion from trying to swallow proposals that have been insufficiently chewed. Yuck.

9. Clients who don't understand how to sequence considerations for productive conversations.

The classic example is the client who wants resolution on a touchy issue yet fails to take into account the absolute necessity of unpacking the distress associated with it before attempting problem solving. (Of course, if the client has never seen distress worked with productively, it's not hard to understand why they haven't made room for it when picturing a successful weekend.)

10. It's relatively common to encounter some ineffective process agreements or bad meeting habits.
In asking for help with a particular issue, the client may be oblivious to the ways in which progress is crippled by a poor understanding of good process, or their inability to contain or redirect dysfunctional behaviors. When this occurs, the outside facilitator may face the challenge of pointing out these shortcomings in a constructive way (often by asking for permission to model something different in pursuit of the named objective). In the extreme, the bulk of the group's challenges can be explained by such structural flaws, rather than because of some deep rift in values, personalities clashes, or insurmountable ideological schisms. The trick, of course, is being able to diagnose that early and knowing how to offer a palatable, yet effective alternative.

11. There's the official reason you've been hired, and then there's the real reason you've been hired.

Unfortunately, you'll be hired on the basis of the former, and judged on the basis of your ability to deliver on the latter. (Did anyone promise you that life would be fair?) When these two do not match up it's important to ferret out the gap between them at your earliest opportunity, so that you'll know the lay out of the land and can adjust your focus accordingly. Sometimes the client knows about this gap (for example, when they can't get agreement from the group to name a vicious internal rift, but they can get permission to get outside "training" in problem solving); and sometimes not. It can be tricky.

12. The liaison(s) may have different agenda than the group.
While this doesn't happen often, sometimes the information passed along to the outside facilitator does not align with what the group thinks is going to happen (talk about fireworks!) and you can be walking into a trap. This is a particularly dangerous version of the previous pitfall, where the discrepancy is bound to get uncovered in the course of the delivery, and the outside facilitator may be the last to know! Typically, this happens when the people charged with setting things up are frustrated with the group's unwillingness to accept their analysis of what's going on, or their recommendation about where the plenary should focus its attention. Rather than accepting the will of the group, the planning folks go rogue, giving the outside facilitator directions for which there is no group agreement (under the theory that's it's easier to get forgiveness than permission) and doesn't let the outside facilitator in on the secret. 

13. It's not unusual for the client to have one or more process objectives in addition to topic objectives. 

For example, they may want movement on a challenging topic to be accomplished in ways that include active input from a higher percentage of the community than usual. Or they're looking for a resolution to an tough issue where there's buy-in from certain identified curmudgeons. The client may or may not be able to articulate this dual need up front (obviously it helps a lot if they can). Once that's in play, you'll need to be able to assess whether you can deliver on both objectives, or have to settle for one.

1 comment:

Brent said...

Thanks, Just what I was looking for.